In 2012 I was a second year student at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, studying composition with Paul Stanhope. Up to this point I had regarded musical dissonance as something to avoid. I had connected the idea of “dissonance” with techniques solely from the avant-garde toolkit that as a young composer I struggled to understand and appreciate. I thought about dissonance as music that made me feel uncomfortable – stuck, aurally tortured. How naive I was! As Paul and I came to better understand one another, he considered it appropriate to introduce me to Arvo Pärt’s works Cantus in Memoriam of Benjamin Britten and Spiegel im Spiegel, and Henryk Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs to foster an expansion in my compositional devices and harmonic pallet.

Ella Macens

After my lesson I headed to the library to explore the scores and recordings for Pärt and Górecki’s works, and upon doing so, time seemed to stand still. I will never forget how I felt listening to these works for the first time. They pushed and pulled my mind and heart in a multitude of different directions – from elation to deep sadness, to angst and total serenity. I was completely spellbound by the emotional intensity of the music, and, as if looking on from the outside, felt completely captivated by my experience of hearing this music for the first time. How was it possible that I was instantly being affected so deeply by this music? How was it possible that within minutes I had tears streaming down my cheeks and yet a soft smile upon my face? I unpacked these works to investigate the compositional devices at play to better understand why I had fallen so deeply in love with this music, and upon doing so began to realise that dissonance flooded this music. The works were full of suspensions and harmonic clusters that pushed and pulled the music, propelling it from one moment to the next. The music cycled between moments of tension and release, tension and release… much like my emotional response upon listening to the music.

This was a significant moment in my journey as a developing composer and I was eager to explore this concept for myself – to turn this newfound understanding into my own musical expression. And so came to be the work in focus here: Superimposition for string ensemble. Paul had opened my eyes to a truly powerful musical weapon – the power of dissonance – a technique that has since become a primary feature throughout my entire body of work.

As the title suggests, Superimposition is centred around the layering of ideas, in this case simple melodic and rhythmic motifs in the generation of larger musical structures. What begins as a simple statement develops into a complex web of gestures, morphing between states of obscurity and clarity, or tension and release, if you will. The result is a wash of sound in which clarity is blurred and the finer details become untraceable.

I’ve waited eight years for this polished version come to life, and I would like to thank the Canberra Symphony Orchestra for presenting this work. This is an intimate moment for me as I share with the world what I consider to be the first serious work in my life as a composer.

Canberra Symphony Orchestra’s CSO Chamber Orchestra performs Superimposition at the National Portrait Gallery on March 12

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